Years of intensive psychotherapy later, as I look back at the shattered landscape of my early life, I still shudder at the cycle of pain and abuse. The most chilling aspect of those years was the fact that my mother’s spiritual language seemed to validate everything. Although I am sure there were spiritual components to my mother’s condition, her ultra-spiritual terminology gave her assaults frightening leverage in our lives. If I had been able to grasp that my mother needed psychological help, perhaps I would not have taken her actions and words so much to heart. I would have had some mastery and control over the situation, and I would have had the correct words to define the reality in which I lived. Had my father been able to come to terms with the problem, I believe he would have attempted to persuade Mom to get professional help.

When I left for college, I watched from a distance as the situation became increasingly chaotic. During my visits home I saw my dad’s jovial demeanor dissolve into brooding melancholy. He began to question why he was still alive. One day as he was walking out of a bank, he fell over with a massive stroke and died. He was only in his sixties.

Mom eventually left the area, and her behavior continued to deteriorate, especially once my father was gone. His presence had served as a kind of support for her erratic condition; once he died there was no one to contain it.

Our family’s faith was a mixed blessing. Had we not believed in God, we might have sought help much more readily. Paradoxically, spiritual language can be a lacquer that covers over and justifies problems rather than helping us discern the most appropriate, even obvious, course of action.

I am a pastor now, and I see many people trapped in a similar cycle of pain. The woman in the abusive marriage whose husband threatens to kill her tells me, “Maybe if I just clean up that back room and keep the kitchen a little neater, things will get better. The Lord put me in this marriage, and God works all things for good.” The wife of a bipolar man whose wild spending habits have brought them to financial ruin says, “God is telling me to love him and pray harder.” There is certainly nothing wrong with loving, and praying harder is always warranted in difficult situations. But these people reappear in my office a week, a month, even a year or two later asking why God hasn’t done anything. Despite their earnest prayers, heaven is silent. The old patterns keep repeating. There is no relief. In fact, the problem now looms larger than before.

I call this cycle “hamster-wheel suffering.” In my work I have seen countless people who struggle with patterns of thought and behavior that keep them spinning but going nowhere. Unless we work through loss, trauma and abuse both psychologically and spiritually, we find ourselves muted, stymied and shut
off from the present because of the past. The broad landscape of life grows dim and small. There seem to be no options. We cannot remember what used to bring us joy. Our sense of identity—if we ever had one—goes underground. Time collapses; we feel old or convince ourselves that life is almost over anyway. Dreams evaporate and fear interlaces even peaceful moments with dread. Delight, joy and wonder are replaced by obligation, guilt and routine.

When reading Dante’s Inferno awhile back I was struck by how much of the torment in Dante’s hell is cyclical. The people in one group are all stabbed in the chest as they travel along their path. They continue on and their wounds begin to heal. As the bleeding stops, these sufferers find they have come full circle, and they are stabbed again. The healing effort is lacerated, and the cycle begins anew. Health and wholeness are dashed. The hope of a new thing is unrealized. This is the hamster wheel. This is hell on earth.